Every runner sets a goal with every race they enter. It may be a time, a ranking, or just to catch the person ahead. If you’re running your first marathon, or half, or ultra, crossing the line may be a victory in itself. But what about if there’s no set distance, and no finish line?
In early 2018, my cousin Laura, whom I had been getting to know recently through Facebook, mentioned she had signed up for the inaugural Lone Wolf trail race in Fernie, British Columbia in June.
The premise was intriguing: Every hour on the hour, all the racers leave together on a 4-mile loop. The next hour, everyone starts together again. If you didn’t finish the last loop in the appointed hour, you’re out of the race. The winner is the last person still at the starting line the last time the gun goes off. It was clear right away I had to sign up, and my running buddy Jack joined me.
Since winning was not a reasonable goal, the question became, How many loops can I pull off? The website called it a “runnable” course. Some quick math guaranteed at least a 20-minute break each hour, and my goal grew from eight loops to 10, to 12, then to, This could be my first 50-miler!
The email from the organizers a week beforehand announced the location as the trailhead to the Nordic ski area. Great! I thought. Cross-country ski trails are fairly flat, so my goals should be on track.
Saturday morning, 78 of us lined up facing those flattish Nordic trails, took off, and took a sharp right. We continued through a parking lot, across a footbridge, and up—not up a wide Nordic ski trail, mind you, but up singletrack. Almost 80 people jammed single file onto the trail, moving uphill at a slow jog that often slowed to a hands-on-knees trudge in the morning fog that was threatening to thicken to rain.
As we snaked up the mountain that first lap, there was lively chatter, mostly echoing my goals. “How far do you think you’ll go?” asks one person. “I was thinking 60 miles,” says another. “I’m aiming for 100,” brags a third. You practically had to swat the optimism aside just to see the trail in front of you.
Our collective enthusiasm waned as we realized Fernie has its own alternate dictionary, where “runnable” means a sometimes slick, root-riddled course that heads up a relentless 720 feet for 2 miles, then shoves you another 720 feet downhill. The fact that you reverse direction each time doesn’t much help.
By the end of the second loop, the goal of running my first 50-miler was tossed onto the heap of future dreams. I soon found a 10-minute break between loops was the minimum needed to gather enough energy for the next loop, so speed was crucial. This meant getting a fast start off the line—on the third lap, I got caught in a slow group and almost missed the cutoff.
The biggest struggle was staying upright. On loop five, I flew off the end of a switchback and into the jagged arms of a felled tree, gifting me with a nasty gash on my lower arm that should have had stitches. The resulting scar is now a permanent reminder of my day on the Fernie trails.
I still made the cutoff time for the sixth loop. Even if that round went past an hour, I was guaranteed 24 miles. Instead, I called it quits. I settled for 20 miles, with only a slight pause. Laura did the same and she, too, had no regrets about stopping.
Around midnight, Jack and I watched the final competitors go through the same process. One by one, those who made the cutoff decided not to start the next loop until it was down to two, and the winner was the one who chose to run that last loop. The last guy who stopped was happy to drink his complimentary beer and drape the second-place wood medallion over his neck.
There seemed to be a shared sense among many of us on the trail that we knew when our time was up—we’d logged enough miles and entered enough races to knows there would be plenty of other great trails ahead. //
Brad Thiessen’s trail running goals include directing the June 22 Mountain Magic 5/10/25K run on Mt. Spokane. He last wrote about Nordic skier Trevin Hansen in the February issue.